Archive | June 2017

Life Lessons from the Garden: The Secret Ingredient

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

My mom is originally from Germany and still retains her thick German accent despite being in the United States for more than fifty years now. She has a rich heritage of living through World War II, coming to America through Ellis Island, and countless stories. My mother is strong, both physically and in character, with a quick wit, hilarious sense of humor and unending energy. I hope to be as vibrant as she is when I’m 81. Truth be told, I sometimes wish I were as vibrant today. My mom and I are both passionate about gardening. We share many joys as it relates to flowers and other greenery in our yards, but also many frustrations. The greatest frustration is what she affectionately calls “varmints.” Squirrels, rabbits, deer, chipmunks, etc. these are the types of creatures that can destroy a garden. We both like to be environmentally conscious in our gardens, trying to avoid lots of chemicals or inhumane ways to solve the varmint problem.

rabbit-717855_960_720One day as we were eating lunch at a restaurant, my mom began sharing about a home remedy she had found in a gardening magazine. It required combining various ingredients commonly found in your home that would get sprayed on flowers. Try to imagine her thick accent as you consider the dialogue that took place in that corner booth. “I tried a new formula for the rabbits that keep eating my plants,” she said. So I played along. “What’s in it?” I asked, expecting the usual ingredients. She responded, “Well, there’s water, und Ivory soap, und castor oil. ..” I thought to myself, “Hmmm … It doesn’t sound terribly potent.” She rattled off some other ingredients from her kitchen, which seemed to make the recipe a little more promising. Then she put down her sandwich, gave a mischievous smile, and said with dramatic pauses, “Then … I added … the secret ingredient.” I waited for her to finish. Looking at her expectantly, I gave her the look that says, “And the secret ingredient is???” Silence. She wouldn’t tell me! I tried prodding it out of her, but she just kept smiling, laughing at my discomfort, hesitant to reveal the lengths she went to for her concoction. Frustrated, I gave up my pursuit of the answer and went back to my lunch. Just as I was about to take a nice, big bite of my sandwich, she blurted out very matter of fact, “I peed in it.” Have you ever had a laughing fit? That’s what happened that day. I couldn’t contain my laughter. My mom joined in the giggling as we tried to subdue the moment. Other patrons in the restaurant began to stare, giving that look that questioned, “What’s your problem?” If they only knew!

We want a recipe, don’t we? Not just for problems in the garden, but we want a formula that will fix the problems of life: the path to financial freedom, the perfect diet, the ten steps to happiness, the “easy how-to”. And the magazines, media and infomercials are more than ready to tell us how to make it happen on our own for only three easy payments of $19.95. In fact, more than 8 billion dollars is spent annually in the self-help industry in America. I’ve found that I long for a secret ingredient to solve life’s problems too, mostly because I’m afraid to expose my own secrets that can hold me in chains and rob me of life. Secrets can take on different forms – maybe hurts from the past that haven’t been dealt with, moments of indiscretion that you’d rather keep quiet, a habit that has slowly grown into an addiction, an area in life where you’re afraid to admit you fall short. I do believe there is a secret ingredient that will help those who battle with these struggles. Don’t worry; it doesn’t require peeing in a bucket. But truth be told, it is even more unpleasant for most. It’s unconventional in society. It screams against the mainstream, asking something of you that most are unwilling to surrender

So, what’s the secret ingredient to living life to the fullest? Expose the secret. It sounds secret-1142327_960_720simple. But for most, the prospect of exposing their secret life causes panic attacks and cold sweats. “But then it’s not a secret,” you say. Exactly. There is incredible power in secrets. Secrecy is the enemy of our soul. We’re often convinced that we need to keep our struggles a secret; that we need to hide it in a veil of darkness. But darkness is where despair resides. When we expose our secret it allows others to share in our lives and know us from the inside out. I don’t know about you, but my deepest longing is to be loved for who I am, not for who I want people to think I am. When we’re truly known, yet truly loved, that’s when we’re truly satisfied. Many think that rejection or disgust from others awaits those who discard their masks of pretense and expose areas in their life where they might not have it all together. But the beauty of it is that the opposite happens. When authenticity shines through, it draws people in. Let’s all be authentic people, exposing our own secrets and admitting our faults. Let’s not only share in the pains, joys and struggles of others, but allow others to share in ours as well. That’s what relationships are for.

Tammy is a regular contributor to our quarterly member newsletter, and her articles will now be a monthly addition to our blog.

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Black Walnut Conundrum

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Leaves and fruit of Black Walnut

Black walnuts have a long history of cultivation on American farms and, to a lesser extent, in gardens all over the East and Midwest. They are beautiful trees, with upright trunks and wide canopies. They bear delicious (though hard to crack) nuts, and they are very valuable as timber trees — a single straight trunk can be worth thousands of dollars.

Unfortunately, black walnuts are not completely garden-friendly. The extensive surface roots compete with anything planted over them, the thick leaf cover produces dense shade, and all parts of the tree exude a chemical called juglone, which inhibits the growth of a great many plants.

Vegetables in the solanaceous group — tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes — seem particularly sensitive to joglone, as are many perennials, including columbines, peonies, and chrysanthemums. Hydrangeas appear to hate juglone. So do rhododendrons and azaleas, lilacs, and lilies. Ditto pines and birches, apples, and blueberries.

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Stately Black Walnut with beautiful over-arching canopy

Because juglone-laden feeder roots extend far beyond the tree’s canopy, and juglone-containing leaves and nut hulls also tend to get spread around, none of the plants listed above is likely to do well unless it’s at least 50 feet away from the drip line of a black walnut and 100 or more feet away from the trunk.

So what’s left? Quite a lot, really. Kentucky bluegrass and black raspberries actually seem to thrive when planted near (but not under) black walnuts. If the soil drainage is good and other growing conditions are right, gardeners have also had success with cucurbits (squash, melon, and cucumber), as well as beans, beets, and carrots.

The list of possible flowers is longer, starting with spring-flowering bulbs (except crocus) and woodland wildflowers such as Jack-in-the-pulpit, sweet woodruff, and cranesbill. Many hostas appear to be up to the challenge, and asters, day lilies, coralbells, and Siberian iris are also likely bets. Euonymous usually does o.k., and so do Japanese maples, viburnums, redbuds, and hemlocks.

One warning: As the recurrence of words like “seems” and “possible” suggests, these pros and cons are based on observations, not controlled experiments. And to complicate matters further, the amount of juglone in the soil can vary considerably, depending on such factors as soil type, drainage patterns, soil microorganisms, and the age of the tree.

So, if there’s something you’re dying to try under a black walnut, try it. But watch carefully. Affected plants will quickly show signs of stress and should be moved before they start dying, too.

Do You Feed Your Trees?

tree-970850_960_720Here’s a question that tends to divide folks right down the middle. When it comes to the wisdom of feeding trees, expert opinion is sharply — in some cases acrimoniously — divided, but the weight of modern practice is increasingly in favor of the dictum that less is more.

A small amount of fertilizer is fine. It will help compensate for the absence of natural fertility that tends to distinguish lawns (where all the leaf litter gets raked up and there is no understory to speak of) from woodlands (where the trees are nourished by lots of decayed plant material).

Fence_and_tree_lined_lawn_Little_Laver_Road,_Essex_EnglandBut before you go out and buy tree food, remember that the small amount needed is likely to be already present as a by-product of fertilizing the lawn. Once you get into adding more than that, it’s likely you will do more harm than good — if you do anything at all. The harm comes because fertilizer pushes the tree into making lots of tender, soft growth. It’s lush, it’s green, it’s very impressive, and it’s also highly vulnerable t insect attacks, climate stress, and the myriad fungus diseases that would be thwarted by tougher tissue.

The doesn’t-do-anything-at-all situation results from putting the food where the tree can’t get at it. Most of a tree’s feeder roots are in the top 10 to 18 inches of soil, and most of them start near the out edge of the canopy (the drip line) and spread outward from there. That means using an injector to put the eats down deep is not going to do much except pollute the groundwater. And spreading the tree’s meal close to its trunk will be just as fruitless.

The bottom line: keep feeding to a minimum unless the tree is in a container where it cannot possibly find nourishment on its own. And if you do use fertilizer on a landscape tree, spread it in a wide band that works out from the drip line.

Pruning Rule Breakers

rhododendron-245633_960_720Rhododendrons, unlike most shrubs, have no painless window for pruning. They start forming the buds for next year’s flowers before this year’s have even opened, and by the time bloom season is done, those buds are well advanced.

It’s difficult emotionally to cut off any of next year’s flowers, but if you continually avoid pruning, you may be even more devastated. In fact, you could end up having to cut the rhododendrons to the ground and start all over again.

Pruning rhododendrons requires imagination as well as sharp sheers. Dr. Richard Lighty, the director of the Mount Cuba Center for the Study of Piedmont Flora in Greenville, Delaware, advises that you try to visualize what the shrub should look like. Reach your goal by critically selecting strong outer branches that, when pruned back, will expose smaller inner branches in the right position to fill in. Once exposed to light, these inner branches will begin to grow.Rhododendron-pruning-outline-diagram1

As the flowers fade, trim no more than 15 to 20 inches off the strong branches. Where should you prune? Where the strong branch is near the tip of an inner branch that has a whorl of glossy leaves surrounding the buds, your signal that the inner branch is healthy. If the shrubs are still too big, reprune in two years.

To make sure the plant has stored enough food that it can easily handle pruning, fertilize in late fall the year before you intend to prune. If you fertilize after pruning, it will put out long, leggy growth.

Although it is better to stay on top of your regular pruning chores, rhododendrons can be cut down to 12 to 15 inches from the ground if necessary. The plants have buds at their base that will generally send up new shoots. But, as I learned, there won’t be any flowers for two to three years.

Return to Reverence – The Marigold

by OCMGA Master Gardener Tammy Borden

Early on in my marriage I wasn’t exactly a gardening diva. In fact, I had very little interest in gardening. But my husband’s father, Louie, had gardening in his veins. I fondly remember going to his house and weaving my way through narrow passageways of seedling flats in his garage. Soon, the flats were transferred to a small greenhouse set up in his driveway. It wasn’t long before friends, neighbors and strangers were stopping in to buy his plants and engaging in some of the most colorful conversation they had ever had.

download (1)Louie, the ultimate salesman, always touted each variety of flower he grew, but none seemed to rival his affection for marigolds. Yes, I said marigolds! It’s not just the marigold’s distinctive scent that causes many seasoned gardeners to turn up their noses. What is it then, that brings many to dismiss them? Could it be that we have become gardening snobs, believing we have progressed too far in our botanical knowledge to extol such a lowly flower, as though it is only reserved for the commoners and unsophisticated gardeners? I hope not. I long to bring marigolds back to their once revered reputation. It’s name alone expresses how admired and respected it once was. In fact, marigold or “Mary’s gold,” was named after the most revered of all women in history, the Virgin Mary, and were believed to bring good luck. Originally discovered in Central America in the 16th century by the Portuguese, it was brought back to Europe where it grew in popularity. Today in South Asia, yellow and orange marigold flowers are grown and harvested by the millions to make garlands used to decorate statues and buildings. In Mexico and Latin America, marigold flowers are used to celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day, and flower heads are scattered on relatives’ graves. So, it stands to reason that they should receive an honored place in our own gardens. Through the years many hybrids have been developed to bring out the most desirable characteristics like large flower heads, various plant sizes and unique colorations.

Perhaps the furthest advances in breeding, however, have been in diminishing one of its most notable qualities: its scent. Many people find the scent offensive. I personally find it’s something that one needs to learn to appreciate. I like to think of it like coffee; when I first tried coffee, I couldn’t understand why anyone would drink such an awful concoction. But with time I came to acquire a taste for the brew and now I love to greet each morning with a hot cup of coffee. And likewise, I love to greet each spring with marigolds.

Many use marigolds to outline garden beds or vegetable plots, believing they help keep out rabbits, deer and insects. While marigolds can deter some pests, they are not the all-purpose pest and plant repellent that people have been led to believe they are. Yet the marigold itself is virtually pest and disease free, with the exception of their arch-nemesis, earwigsfrench-marigold-1225611__180, which like to nestle and munch inside its tightly clustered flower heads. Despite countless breeders’ attempts, very few new color varieties of marigolds have been developed. The most common remain the yellow, gold and orange varieties seen in garden centers and catalogues. You will not find a pink marigold… yet.

Burpee’s Seeds, however, has done exceptionally well with developing unusual white varieties of marigolds. ‘French Vanilla’ is my personal favorite. It’s scent is light and pleasant, and is one of Burpee’s earliest triumphs in hybridizing white marigolds. It grows to 2’ with large 3½” flower heads and deep green foliage. The blooms are white with a hint of cream. Other notable white varieties include ‘Snowball’ and ‘Snowdrift’. Burpee’s Seeds played a major role in making the marigold among the most used flowers in America. After sweeping over Europe and Asia in popularity, David Burpee saw the promise in marigolds. In 1915 he took over the seed company founded by his father, W. Atlee Burpee. Young David felt that marigolds held promise and decided to feature them in his catalog and fund research. If you love giant flower heads, try the ‘Inca’ or ‘Inca II’ varieties. These giants produce 4-5” flower heads of bright yellow or orange on stocky 20” plants. If you’ve driven down South Oneida Street in Appleton during the summer, you’ll notice this variety lining the streets of Marigold Mile. Many other great varieties are available. Here are the three most common types of marigolds:

 

  • African or American Marigolds: These plants grow to 3’ in height with large globe-shaped flowers. ‘French Vanilla’ is among these beauties.
  • French Marigolds: These plants generally grow from 5-18” tall. Flower colors include red, orange and yellow, as well as bicolor varieties. Flowers grow to 2”across. A great new variety is called ‘Fireball,’ a unique combination of yellow and reddish orange with a large flower head.
  • Signet Marigolds: Recognized for their finely divided, lacy foliage and clusters of small, single flowers. The flowers are yellow to orange colored and are edible, having a spicy tarragon flavor. The foliage also has a pleasant lemon fragrance. A popular variety is ‘Starfire,’ with petite, bushy plants that boast hundreds of small florets.

downloadThe marigold. It’s no fuss, easy going, with a bright and sunny disposition. It may not be the flashiest of flowers or even the most impressive. It’s good at highlighting others around it, and is reliable, strong and simple. But I suppose that is why I love the marigold so much. Its attributes, character and charm remind me of Louie, who has sadly since gone on to meet the Master Gardener of all gardeners. It is partly because of him that I am so passionate about starting my own seeds, and I will always grow ‘French Vanilla’ marigolds in his memory.

Fragrant Night Bloomers

by OCMGA Master Gardener Vicki Schilleman

Perfume that doesn’t attract insects would be a horticultural oxymoron: putting out the come-hither for pollinators is a flower’s sole purpose, and perfume is a large part of the mating dance. However, not everyone wants to sit in a garden when the bees and other pollinators are moving around, and you can have a fragrant garden that’s low on bees by using night-blooming plants.

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Brugmansia

 

Choices range from the small, inconspicuous, but mightily perfumed annual known as night-blooming stock (Matthiola bicornis) to the many cultivated varieties of Brugmansia, a tropical tree that can grow to 10 feet or more and has been showing up in nurseries under the name angels’ trumpets. All parts of the brugmansia are highly poisonous, but there’s no denying the plant’s appeal. It’s huge flowers blare tropical sweetness from dusk until almost sunup. White is the most common color and usually the most fragrant, but brugmansia also comes in yellow, orange, peach, and pink. Like Chinese hybiscus, mandevilla, and the many other tropicals sold by nurseries in temperate climates, brugmansias are not frost hardy and must be overwintered indoors.

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Nicotiana Sylvestris

 

If you want to stick to annuals, there are plenty to choose from — nicotiana, for example. You’d never know it from the modern cultivars, which lost fragrance when they were bred to stay open during the day, but old-fashioned flowering tobacco (Nicotiana alata) has a very strong night perfume, and so does its much taller, architecturally splendid cousin N. sylvestris.

Other candidates include moonflower vines, night-blooming jasmine, evening primrose, and oddball day lilies like ‘Pardon Me,’ which don’t get going until the sun goes down.